UCL faces pressure to block under-investigation lecturer from demanding reparations

University College London is under pressure to block a lecturer from demanding reparations while her slavery research is under investigation.

Dr Jenny Bulstrode, an academic in the history of science at the Russell Group institution, sparked global headlines in the summer by claiming that Henry Cort, who is widely credited for inventing a groundbreaking new iron-making process in 1784, stole his idea from Jamaican slaves.

History and Technology, the prestigious academic journal where her article was published, is now investigating the paper after historians claimed there was “absolutely no evidence” in her primary sources, as this newspaper revealed last week.

Despite the concerns, Dr Bulstrode is still calling for “monetary reparations” for the “simultaneous theft and denial of black innovation”, in an opinion piece based on the research that remains live on the UCL website.

Citing her research, she writes in the piece on August 24 that her work exposes “arguably one of the biggest thefts in the history of intellectual property”.

Dr Bulstrode repeats the claims that have been debunked by rival historians from her original paper, that “the so-called ‘Cort process’, patented by the financier Henry Cort between 1783 and 1784” of turning scrap iron into high-quality wrought iron “was first developed by 76 black metallurgists, many of them enslaved, in an 18th-century foundry in Jamaica”.

She adds in the piece that “as the global reparations movement gains traction it opens a new discourse about the debt owed for that which was stolen” but “recognition of the theft of black intellectual property provides a starting point for quantifying the harms that were done and continue to resonate to this day”.

A colleague of Dr Bulstrode, Dr Sheray Warmington, an honorary research associate at UCL, also made similar demands in The Guardian in July, saying that the research helped “push forward the discourse of technological transfer as a key tenet of the reparations movement”.

Dons have now urged UCL’s president and provost Dr Michael Spence not to make any further demands until the probe has concluded. 

Prof Robert Tombs, a leading historian at the University of Cambridge, told The Telegraph: “This whole demand for reparations is absurd, and that it is being based on shoddy and incredible historical claims makes it even more patently absurd.”

Fellow historian Prof George Garnett, of the University of Oxford, said: “Obviously any proposal based on the existing article will presumably now have to wait until the investigation has concluded.

“Surely one has to wait before reaching judgement until due process has been gone through.”

Another historian, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph: “Because there are grave doubts about the accuracy of this research, before any further claim is made on the basis of it, let us pause and investigate. Let’s at least establish the veracity.

“This is so dangerous to history and to the whole profession.”

Last week, this newspaper disclosed how rival scholars had trawled through the primary sources Dr Bulstrode based her theory upon and claimed there was no evidence of grooved rollers or a new iron-making method ever existing at Reeder’s Pen, the foundry at Morant Bay in Jamaica established in 1772 by an Englishman, John Reeder, which forms the focal point of her thesis.

In response to the latest criticism, UCL said it would not be removing Dr Bulstrode’s reparations opinion piece from their website while the probe continues.

A spokesman said: “Taylor & Francis, publisher of the History and Science journal, has launched a review process into this peer reviewed study. Once that process has concluded and should any clarifications or addendums be required, we will ensure these are reflected in our published articles.”

Taylor & Francis, the publisher of the History and Technology journal, said “the investigation is guided by advice we receive from subject experts to help us determine next steps” and that it “wouldn’t expect to publish an Expression of Concern, which is a permanent addition to the scholarly record” until the probe has concluded.

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